By Lee Pace
With a goal of winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons for only the third time in school history ... with the idea of beating your arch-rival for the fourth time in five years ... with the fervent desire to send 16 seniors out on a winning note ... with a national TV audience watching on a day most of the country is slaking a turkey-and-pecan pie hangover with a day of rest ...
With all that hanging in the balance, anything less than perfection won’t cut it. The Tar Heels learned that in 2008 with a 41-10 lambasting by N.C. State on Senior Day and 35-7 in 2014 on another landslide loss to the Wolfpack to wrap up the home season. Alas, the Tar Heels stumbled from the gate Friday, fell behind 21-0 and had too high a crater to climb out of and eventually dropped a bitter 28-21 loss to the Wolfpack.
You cannot turn a routine handoff into a fumble that leads to seven points, as quarterback Mitch Trubisky did early in the game and spotted the Wolfpack a short field.
“I was pulling the ball but I didn’t have a good grip on it,” Trubisky said. “That’s my fault, we’ve got to have a better mesh in the backfield. I’ve got to take care of the football.”
“Usually you drop a football because it’s a lack of concentration, that’s really all it is,” Coach Larry Fedora said. “You catch a ball because you focus on the ball and you focus on fundamentals. We didn’t do that today.”
You cannot let a receiver run free on a gadget play that you knew was coming and had rehearsed during the week. State QB Ryan Finley threw a lateral to Jaylen Samuels in the right flat and the Tar Heels bit on the fake, leaving Stephen Louis open for a 59-yard score. Later Carolina fell prey to a flea-flicker, but the 56-yard gain was called back because of a holding penalty.
“The thing for our guys is to expect the unexpected,” Tar Heel defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said last week. “They will come with some different stuff. We fully expect it.”
“We saw the game coming,” tackle Nazair Jones said. “Coach Chiz told us when the plays were coming, how they were going to do it, but we still failed to execute. That’s on us.”
“We practiced all that, we just didn’t execute,” defensive back M.J. Stewart added. “We went over almost all those trick plays in practice. We just didn’t make plays.”
You cannot reach with your hands to hold off a defensive lineman or get antsy and jump; holding and false start flags set the offense back too often against a defense that was No. 7 in the nation against the run, allowing just over 100 yards a game, and features a defensive line that’s certainly among the best the ACC.
“We got behind the chains,” receiver Ryan Switzer said. “We felt like if we got them in their base defense, we’d be okay. They have a helluva D-line and some guys that can really get after the quarterback. When you get behind the chains with a team like that, they really come. They play hard. Those guys are talented. You have to tip your hat to those guys and that coaching staff. They had a good game plan.”
You cannot miss a head-on tackle like Andre Smith did at the 15-yardline against Matt Dayes early in the second quarter; Dayes bounced off Smith and turned it into an 18-yard touchdown. You cannot lose your composure like Jalen Dalton did during a second-quarter, post-whistle scrum and get ejected. You cannot strike anything but a perfect ball on a onside kick to open the second half, but Nick Weiler’s kick bounced as it should for an instant but then died just before traveling the requisite 10 yards, and the Tar Heels were flagged for blocking before the ball went that distance.
“We just didn’t get it done, and on both sides of the ball there were a lot of ordinary plays that we make every day that we just didn’t make today,” Fedora said. “You can’t put yourself behind the eight-ball that way and continue to make those mistakes throughout the day and think you’re going to overcome them.”
The loss to State and the one two weeks ago to Duke marks the first time since 2003 the Tar Heels have lost to their Triangle-area rivals in the same year. Before that, you have to go back to 1988-89 when coaches Dick Sheridan at State and Steve Spurrier at Duke held sway over the tumultuous early days of the Mack Brown era to find that double-dose of misery against backyard antagonists.
Sadly those losses coming when they did and against whom have taken the sparkle off an opposite accomplishment of having gone into the state of Florida in October and knocked off perennial powers Florida State and Miami. A regular-season mark of 8-4 coming off an ACC Coastal Division title and coming into November with a chance to repeat (if Virginia Tech could stumble) doesn’t seem to cut it when the Tar Heels’ goals have been readjusted upward.
“Getting eight wins, it’s okay,” said Smith, the sophomore linebacker. “But it’s not really something we’re proud of or we celebrate. It’s very disappointing.”
“My heart goes out to the seniors,” added Stewart, a junior. “I feel for them. This is not how we wanted to end the season.”
One of the seniors feeling the most pain was Switzer, who caught 13 balls for 171 yards and one score. He’s played this year with sore ankles and wrists and shoulders and at times Saturday was on the brink of exhaustion, but like the Energizer Bunny kept coming back. As the Tar Heels were mounting a fourth-quarter rally, had cut the State lead to one touchdown and were forcing a three-and-out on defense with seven minutes to play, Switzer moved away from the mass of coaches and players along the Tar Heel sideline on the east end of the field, where the Wolfpack offense was operating, by himself to the west side to prepare himself to take the field and receive the ensuing punt.
One touchdown behind; momentum clearly in Tar Heels’ corner; Switzer still needing that eighth career punt return touchdown to tie an NCAA career record; the memory just four years old of Gio Bernard cutting out State’s heart at the end of the game.
Could we dare dream?
“I just wanted to make a play so bad, I just didn’t want to lose,” Switzer said later, his voice cracking. “Anytime I go out there, I want to make something happen. Every time I step on the field, I have the mindset to score.”
State punter A.J. Cole nailed a gorgeous ball 52 yards with good hang time, and Wolfpack gunner Dravious Wright beat Stewart’s efforts to jam him on the way downfield and was in Switzer’s face, forcing a fair catch. Another false start penalty and then a holding flag on the Tar Heels on the ensuing series were emblematic of a final thrust that ended with senior Bug Howard splayed out, reaching for a fourth-down pass from Trubisky that was three inches too far. Howard grasped it mid-air, then lost control as he landed, and the ball bounced to the ground.
Howard was slow to get up and leave the field, the trainers attending to him, but soon it was obvious the pain was purely emotional. A universe of Tar Heel fans was right there with him as he beat the turf with his fists and wailed from underneath his facemask.
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace has covered Tar Heel football for 26 years through “Extra Points” and a dozen as the Tar Heel Sports Network’s sideline reporter. He has just published a book on Kenan Stadium, “Football in a Forest.” Follow him at @LeePaceTweet and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.